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The Magnet and the Iron: John Brown and George L. Stearns The Stories Behind the Busts


For decades, the noseless bust of an unknown, bearded man lay forgotten somewhere in a closet at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts. In 1998, it was removed to fine arts storage, but remained unidentified. It wasn't until 2015 that the bust’s identity was rediscovered: John Brown, the radical abolitionist, whose failed raid at Harpers Ferry in 1859 hastened the start of the Civil War. Further digging revealed a plethora of intriguing stories, from the dramatic stories of the bust’s creation to the abolitionist endeavors of the couple that commissioned it: George L. and Mary Stearns of Medford.

George and Mary Stearns resided in Medford on a large estate on land that now belongs to Tufts University. A painting in the university’s collection, The Stearns Estate, 1899 (William Hauk, 1944), illustrates the idyllic property situated along present-day College Avenue, the hill on which Tufts was founded notably prominent in the background.

John Brown
Image courtesy of the Tufts University Permanent Collection
The Stearns Estate, 1899
Image courtesy of the Tufts University Permanent Collection
Major George L. Stearns
Image courtesy of the West Virginia State Archives, John Brown/Boyd B. Stutler Collection

During their lives, George and Mary Stearns used their estate, known as the Evergreens, as a meeting ground for the intellectual and liberal-minded elite of the day, discussing such topics as public education reform, antislavery, and women’s rights. Having become deeply and morally interested in the progression of the antislavery cause, in the mid-1800s the Stearnses utilized their home as a “station” along the Underground Railroad, hiding at least one fugitive slave for several weeks. The Stearnses became outspoken supporters of the cause and used their ties and wealth in New England to ensure the spread of the antislavery movement. During the Civil War, George Stearns was also responsible for setting up the first black regiment, the 54th Massachusetts Infantry.

The Stearnses’ support was characterized by investments and activism, most notably in support of John Brown and his preparations for the raid on Harpers Ferry in October 1859. Upon hearing of Brown’s imprisonment and the likelihood of his execution, Mary Stearns commissioned Winchester-based artist Edward Augustus Brackett to travel to Charles Town, in modern-day West Virginia, in order to produce a realistic bust of Brown. Taking measurements and making sketches in secrecy from the door of Brown’s cell, Brackett completed a plaster cast of which many copies were made in an effort to memorialize the martyr of the abolitionist movement. One such copy was created in marble and displayed in the Stearns home in Medford.

The official unveiling of the bust occurred on the evening of New Year’s Day in 1863 during the celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation and to honor the late Brown. Among the notable invitees were Ralph Waldo Emerson, Franklin Sanborn, Julia Ward Howe, Amos Bronson Alcott, and William Lloyd Garrison. The image of the bust became an icon of the abolitionist movement.

Cabinet Card of John Brown Bust (A.C. Russell)
Image courtesy of the West Virginia State Archives, John Brown/Boyd B. Stutler Collection
John Brown Bust Cabinet Card (Litchfield Studios)
Courtesy of anonymous. Used by permission.
John Brown Bust Cabinet Card (Warren)
The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, Photography Collection, The New York Public Library

The bust of John Brown remained in the Stearns Estate for many decades. After the death of George, Mary Stearns commissioned a bust of her late husband to sit alongside it. When the Stearns Estate was bequeathed to Tufts College in 1919, the two busts were acquired by the university and vandalism led to the loss the nose and right eyebrow of the John Brown bust. University records only hint at the busts’ whereabouts for the next 80 years, and even after they were rediscovered in 1998, their identities remained unknown. The story of the identification and restoration of the busts is a grand tale in and of itself that features coincidence, detective work, and state-of-the-art 3D printing technology.

Busts of John Brown and George L. Stearns
The busts of John Brown (by Edward A. Brackett) and George L. Stearns (by Samuel Morse) on display in the Tisch Library. Photograph taken August 16, 2017.

The busts of John Brown and George L. Stearns, now restored and on display at the Tisch Library at Tufts University

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Or click here to go to the next page: John Brown and the Secret Six